The Coke Can Plutonium Experiment

On arrival at lecture halls, he would push his stand-in for plutonium into an empty Coke can he had sawn in half. During his talks, he would hold the can up so his audience could see it, and say the contents could incinerate a city. “A six-pack of these is a nuclear arsenal,” he would say.

A World Awash in a Nuclear Explosive? TruthOut,  19 March 2014 12:24 By Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey SmithCenter for Public Integrity | Report Washington #……..The Coke Can Experiment In the abstract, there’s plenty of alarm in official circles. “Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city — be it New York or Moscow; Tokyo or Beijing; London or Paris — could kill hundreds of thousands of people,” President Barack Obama told the United Nations Security Council in September 2009. “And it would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life.”

But Cochran has long criticized the effectiveness of one of Washington’s most costly and elaborate strategies to prevent such a catastrophe — a global effort to detect and capture illicit fissile materials at border crossings and major world ports.

Since 2003 the United States has spent more than $850 million on equipment and training for customs officials at 45 foreign ports so they can scan shipping containers to detect nuclear materials. It’s a daunting assignment. About 432 million shipping containers crisscrossed the oceans in 2009 alone. U.S. ports accept 15 million containers every year.

The initial goal of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration under the so-called Megaports program was to install equipment at more than 100 foreign ports by 2018 and train local officials to scan half of global traffic. But many countries with large stocks of nuclear explosive materials did not participate in the program, according to the NNSA, including France, India, Russia and Japan.

Some countries that installed the U.S. equipment — like Panama — later reported using it on a tiny fraction of their cargo. As of 2012, China had installed just a single monitor at one port, out of 12 Chinese ports given high priority rankings by Washington, according to a report that year by the Government Accountability Office.

The NNSA has never released data on what nuclear materials its foreign partners reported seizing, but intelligence officials have said the equipment has only flagged tons of mildly radioactive scrap metal, not the makings of potential bombs.

“The technologies used … may not be able to detect nuclear or other radiological material that has been shielded or masked, and terrorists could also bypass” it, the GAO report stated. It added that the Energy Department, which inherited some of the scanners as cast-offs from the Department of Homeland Security, didn’t adequately test them; instead, it changed the name of the hardware to “avoid the negative connotations associated with” its prior service.

At a Washington symposium last year meant to showcase some new technologies for portal monitoring, Cochran stood in the audience, cautioned the sponsor that they might want to turn off their video recorders, and then firmly tore apart the premise that such detection devices could play a useful role in protecting the country from nuclear terror.

“I wouldn’t put another penny” in such technologies, Cochran said, because “it won’t reduce the risk.” The billions already spent could better have been used for “intelligence, police work, locking up materials at the source,” or eliminating their production altogether. Millions of illegal immigrants “didn’t go through ports,” he said. And screening all rail cars and container ships would be impossibly costly.

Cochran says that border detection is a particularly futile exercise for enriched uranium. Radiation detectors would have to be placed on top of a container, he says, to register the kind of radiation given off by uranium. Plutonium is more difficult to shield, but it could still be done — perhaps by packing the plutonium in a light material, like a plastic containing many hydrogen atoms to absorb the neutrons that would set off a detector.

“The only way you can solve this problem is by securing the plutonium at the source,” or by not producing it in the first place, he said. “You can’t secure the border.”

Battered by persistently critical audits and by criticisms like Cochran’s, the Energy Department has slowly been shifting ground. In budget documents last year, DOE suspended installation of new scanning equipment at large container seaports pending a review on the cost and effectiveness of the program. The administration’s budget called for eliminating the $133 million program in fiscal 2014. Congress in January also capped spending on the Megaports program, providing enough funds to expand it only modestly.

While Cochran couches many of his arguments in the language of mathematics and physics, he has also sought to drive home his points with theatrics.

At the height of the 1970s battle over the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, he hit on an idea for demonstrating how easy it would be to smuggle the fuel needed for an atomic bomb past international borders.

So for $100, he purchased by mail from a Massachusetts lab supply company a 6.8 kilogram — 15 pound — cylinder of dense, heavy, depleted uranium, a mildly radioactive waste material from reactors that cannot be used to make a bomb. Fifteen pounds was the largest order allowed without a government license; the same quantity can still be purchased readily today. The cylinder had the same weight and a similar bulk as the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb.

Then, when he flew to lectures or meetings, Cochran wrapped the uranium in lead, stuck it in a length of yellow-painted pipe with a handle welded to it and carried it through airport security. After being stopped at an x-ray machine in one airport, he told the operator “it’s uranium, don’t worry about it. It’s okay.” She let him through and he carried it onto the plane.

On arrival at lecture halls, he would push his stand-in for plutonium into an empty Coke can he had sawn in half. During his talks, he would hold the can up so his audience could see it, and say the contents could incinerate a city. “A six-pack of these is a nuclear arsenal,” he would say.

During a 1995 Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing in the Capitol building about how easy it would be to smuggle plutonium out of Russia, Cochran produced his Coke can and waved a hand-held radiation detector over it to prove it was radioactive.

Six years later, after the 9/11 attacks, ABC News correspondent Brian Ross asked Cochran to borrow his Coke can, and wound up smuggling it from Vienna back to the United States, first by boarding a train through the Balkans and then by container ship out of Istanbul. The ship docked at a Staten Island facility where Customs officials said they had installed detectors capable of spotting radioactive materials.

“This is what they’re looking for or should be looking for and this is what they absolutely have to stop,” Cochran said on camera. But Customs inspectors never opened the ornamental Turkish chest the can was stored in, and it was later carried by truck to a warehouse at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, across from Manhattan.

U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner told ABC that inspectors determined “that container did not pose a threat for having, let’s say, some sort of nuclear weapons grade material in it or a nuclear device.”

But Cochran said Customs could not have detected anything without opening the crate, and obviously missed it. “You can reliably detect most anything with sufficient money or time to do it, but you don’t have sufficient money or time to do it at a border,” he says. “So basically you can’t reliably detect it.”

After a second smuggling episode embarrassed the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the department dispatched agents to the ABC News offices in Los Angeles, the home of a cameraman, and Cochran’s home in Alexandria, Va., where they blocked him from leaving to shop for groceries.

“Has any law been broken?” Cochran asked. An agent said she wanted to ask him some questions. Cochran said he would, but only in his office during the work week, and only with an NRDC lawyer present. The meeting never occurred and no charges were ever filed. But Homeland Security officials seized the depleted uranium.

Asked about the episode several months ago, Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement service, said she could not find any information about the investigation or the fate of the sample.

So ended the tale of the nuclear Coke can — at least for now. Cochran isn’t making any promises about the future. “I think it’s a more dangerous time [than] when Ted Taylor was making his case, and I began to make that case,” Cochran says. “It was difficult to point to active terrorist cells that were out there, poised to get this kind of material. And now we know they’re out there.”

Annoying? Perhaps. Persistent? For sure. But the way Cochran sees it, sometimes that’s what it takes.


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